HC Deb 14 May 1964 vol 695 cc605-9
Sir H. Oakshott

(by Private Notice) asked the Postmaster-General to use his powers under Section 15(4) of the Licence and Agreement to direct the B.B.C. to refrain from sending the play entitled "The Open Grave" on Sunday next.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)

Although I have the power referred to in the Question, it has always been regarded as a reserve power and it has never at any time been used for this purpose. For reasons which I know the House will appreciate I should be very reluctant to set a precedent which could lead to censorship over certain types of programmes.

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the Chairman of the Corporation has assured me personally that the "blurb" on this film in the Radio Times is quite misleading and that in Canada, where it was first shown, the protests to which the Radio Times refers were mainly made before the film was shown and not after the showing.

The B.B.C. also feels that the film will not give offence, and, naturally, I hope that this proves to be so.

Sir H. Oakshott

I fully accept my right hon. Friend's very proper reluctance to exercise these special and exceptional powers and I must assume that the notice in the Radio Times is an accurate description of this play. If it is not, it is the fault of the B.B.C.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the play so described will cause deep shock and grave offence to a large number of people? Is it not outrageous that in a civilised Christian country like this the central figure of the Christian faith should be shamed by being likened to a convicted murderer? Is this really the way to provoke thought among some people—by bruising the feelings of so many others?

Mr. Bevins

Naturally I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety and I agree with him that the B.B.C. is responsible for what appears in the Radio Times. But on the main question which I know is in the minds of so many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I think that it would be better to see this programme before making a firm judgment upon it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Senior members of the Corporation who have seen the film do not feel that it will prove to be objectionable. As I say, I very much hope that this will prove to be so.

Mr. G. Thomas

Is the Minister aware that no one wishes to see, or at least I do not wish to see, a censorship imposed on B.B.C. or I.T.V., and that I believe that they ought to accept proper standards? Is he further aware that, in these difficult days, when people who are trying to defend Christian standards are under fire in so many ways, there is an extra obligation on the B.B.C. not further to aggravate the difficulties? Will he ask to see this play before it goes on the air?

Mr. Bevins

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said and I will consider his last question. For the moment, I can only repeat that I well understand the concern over this matter, but it is the case that very often the notes which appear in the broadcasting journals give a very false impression of the effect of a programme.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I fully understand the concern of my right hon. Friend about this matter and his reluctance to exercise these reserve powers. May I point out to him that, however inaccurate may be the description in the Radio Times, the fact remains that this is quite clearly an atrocious parody of the Christian story which is quite unacceptable to anyone of any religious belief?

May I say to my right hon Friend that here he has a great responsibility? Could not he in some way delay the showing of this film? Is he aware that it is no argument to say, "Let us see it first"? It is then too late. Would he look at this matter again and give it further consideration?

Mr. Bevins

All that I can say for the moment is that the B.B.C. is sensitive to what is said in this House and I am quite sure that the new Chairman of the Corporation, Lord Normanbrook, will be equally sensitive—perhaps more so—to what is said here.

Mr. M. Foot

Will the Minister resist the attempt to impose a censorship? Will he also resist the suggestion in the latter part of his reply that we in this House of Commons should turn ourselves into censors? Will the right hon. Gentleman take into account that—no doubt properly—a very large amount of time is given by the B.B.C. and I.T.V. to the presentation of religious views, and that, if this play is critical of the Christian faith in some particulars, that would not be a reason for excluding it from being shown; certainly, it would not be a reason for people who have not seen it to condemn it in advance? Will the Minister stand up for the principle which he enunciated earlier and resist pressure to have a censorship which would destroy free discussion and free speech in this country?

Mr. Bevins

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has misunderstood the thought in the minds of many of my hon. Friends. May I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the House, that never at any time have I suggested that the House of Commons should become the censor either of the B.B.C. or the I.T.A. That does not mean that either of those two public Corporations ought to be insensitive to Parliamentary or to public opinion.

Several Hon. Membersrose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.

Mr. Swingler

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Obviously, I am not in any way criticising what has taken place. I should like to ask, for the guidance of the House in future, since on quite a number of occasions on both B.B.C. and I.T.V. there are television and radio programmes which are offensive—some of them extremely offensive—to sections of opinon in the country, whether, in future, it will be possible to ask Private Notice Questions about particular programmes?

This is a matter of great importance to all hon. Members and to people in the country who hold particular opinions. We have just had attention drawn to a particular programme which is considered—perhaps properly so—to be extremely offensive to certain sections of opinion. There are many occasions on which this has occurred, and will occur.

I should like you, Mr. Speaker, to give some guidance to the House whether this sets a precedent and that it will be possible to ask a Private Notice Question on programmes which are forecast to be shown on television and which are considered to be offensive to particular sections of the community?

Mr. Speaker

I will give very precise guidance. It has never been the custom, and I should not think it right to make it so, publicly to give reasons for the allowance or disallowance of any Private Notice Question, and that applies to this Question.

With regard to the future, I shall, of course, consider any Private Notice Question submitted in due time in the circumstances which then arise and in relation to the subject.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Can you remind us, Mr. Speaker, whether any previous Private Notice Question has been allowed by yourself or your predecessors on a specific programme being broadcast in this country?

Mr. Speaker

Not without reference. I could not do so with regard to a Private Notice Question. With regard to a Question, it has. The Private Notice Question aspect may be affected by the matter of urgency. But I have to consider them all on their merits or demerits in the circumstances when application is made.

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